The History of BMW’s GS-Series, The Bike That Saved BMW Motorrad

The story of the GS, from its unusual origins to the latest world-beaters, has been told for the first time in BMW GS-Series : The Complete Story by Good-Bikers...

Just 35 years ago there was no such thing as an "adventure bike". Now, typified by BMW’s market-leading R1200GS, it’s one of the most popular, dynamic and competitive of all the motorcycle categories.

Back in 1980 BMW unveiled the very first GS (or, strictly speaking G/S) – the R80G/S, a machine which, though radical and revolutionary at the time, quickly became so successful it not only spawned a whole dynasty of BMWs but, in inspiring competitors and rivals, created a whole new motorcycling class.

It’d be natural to assume the creation of that first ‘GS’ in the late 1970s – the R80G/S – was the result of some kind of genius epiphany. In truth, it was mostly borne out of desperation.

At that time BMW Motorrad not only had a very staid image (one that contrasts very sharply with the company behind the new S1000XR and latest GSs of today), it was also facing commercial disaster in the face of competition from the burgeoning Japanese "Big Four".

In fact, as the 70s wore on and Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki grew to dominate not just their traditional lightweight classes but, increasingly, large capacity motorcycling too (with newcomers like the Gold Wing, XS750, GS1000E and Z1300),BMW, with its premium prices, dowdy image and old-fashioned, aircooled, shaft-drive boxer twins was in big trouble.

One solution was already in the works – the all-new K-series; a high tech, liquid-cooled, fuel-injected family of longitudinal fours and triples. But that project was still years away. In the meantime BMW needed something attention-grabbing, affordable and new – and it needed it quick.

BMW GS - Series : Born From Sport

A second idea had started floating around BMW. Large capacity trail bikes such as Yamaha’s XT500 had proved increasingly popular, and although BMW had never commercially produced an enduro, it had been involved in the sport for over 50 years, and in the early 70s had produced a series of ‘works’ machines to compete in both the 500cc+ class of the German off-road championship and the International Six Days Trial.

Indeed, one of its riders – Herbert Schek – won the German championship in both 1970 and ’71 then, in 1972, after the factory pulled out, he built his own BMW-based bike and promptly won again.

He wasn’t alone. In 1975, BMW suspension engineer Rudiger Gutsche also built himself an enduro based on an R75/5 and was a regular on the German enduro scene. There were many others, too.

Things really got going though in 1977, when a pending rule change in the German championship – creating a new class for 750+cc machines – prompted BMW technical director Hans-Gunter von der Marwitz to commission Italian firm Laverda to build two enduro prototypes based around BMW’s R60 engines.

All in all, the following year at the Benetsov round of the series, three different ‘GS concepts’ lined up side by side: Schek with his self-built 800, the "Laverda-BMW", piloted by factory rider Helmut Pohl and Laszlo Peres from BMW’s test department with his own self-built 800 weighing just 142kg. It was Peres who went on to second place in that year’s series.

Spurred by this success, Peres saw an opportunity to develop a production model and teamed up with some fellow engineers to build a forerunner of what would ultimately become the G/S; a prototype that became dubbed the "Red Devil".

"It was just a prototype," recalled Peres later. "Something we made to test. I had many years’ experience of enduro riding so thought we should develop something new."

At the same time the factory itself, still in dire straits, was spurred into action. In early 1979 group boss Eberhard von Kuenheim installed new senior management at BMW Motorrad headed by Dr. Eberhard C Sarfert and Karl Heinz Gerlinger.

"When he asked us to take over this business he said, ‘Decide whether you make it or you close it’," recalled Gerlinger more than three decades later. "But when you’re young, how can you think of selling off BMW Motorrad? I couldn’t do it."

Instead Gerlinger promptly not only gave the green light for the new K machines, but for Peres’ enduro project, too.

The reins were handed to Gutsche. He was charged with turning the best of these competition machines into something mass producible. Tasked with using BMW’s modular approach and restricted by an extremely tight time schedule, the R80 ‘G/S’, as it was to be called, quickly evolved.

A second, silver, almost production-ready prototype complete with upswept exhaust but still lacking the radical Monolever single-sided rear suspension, followed soon after.

Monster Trailies

Finally, on September 19, 1980, at the Cologne Show the R80G/S was unveiled. The reaction amazed BMW bosses, not just because of the level of interest aroused, but by the number of orders taken there and then. By the end of 1981, the G/S’s first year in production, a total of 6631 machines – more than twice the number originally planned – had left the Berlin assembly lines. Or, to put it another way: one in five BMW's sold in 1981 was a G/S. A star was born.

Of course that was only the beginning. Although the original G/S proved a huge hit that success couldn’t be expected to last forever: popularity doesn’t just attract admirers, it breeds imitators.

So, as the 80s wore on, inspired by both the success of BMW’s new enduro and the growing significance of the Paris-Dakar Rally, rival manufacturers from both Japan, and later Europe, began to introduce their own ever larger enduros; machines such as Honda’s XLV750R followed by the XRV750 ‘Africa Twin’, Suzuki’s DR750, Yamaha’s Super Tenere and more.

The new genre quickly became referred to as "monster trailies" and became hugely popular. But it wasn’t just the G/Ss sales success its rivals envied. The parallel growth of the Paris-Dakar Rally and the sporting headlines, kudos and TV airtime – particularly in France – it garnered, were like manna from heaven for any ambitious motorcycle manufacturer.

Success in the Dakar with a big enduro not only led to sales of road-going versions (BMW’s four victories in the Dakar in ’81, ’83, ’84 and ‘85 had proved that), it brought credibility and priceless publicity to a whole brand.

But as the 80s wore on, people began asking for more from the G/S. More power was one request (indeed BMW’s own Paris-Daker racers grew to 1000cc from 1983); increased off-road ability, particularly of the rear suspension was another.

Thus in the late summer of 1987 not one, but two new BMWs were unveiled: a new R80GS and a bigger brother; the R100GS.

Apart from the larger displacement option, the biggest change was the enhanced handling and comfort offered by the radical new Paralever system, which significantly reduced the ‘torque reaction’ from the sha drive.

Further changes came in 1991, in the form of a framemounted fairing carried over from that of the Paris-Daker version/kit introduced for the previous model GS in 1989. But the biggest change so far came three years later. Even before the "second-generation" GS, was put into production, it was clear – not least to BMW itself – that the end was nigh for an air-cooled, two-valve boxer-powered GS. Not only was the competition becoming ever-more fierce, increasingly strenuous noise and emissions regulations were becoming impossible to meet.

So, by the early 1990s the imminent arrival of an all new, oil-cooled, four-valve BMW boxer powerplant was common knowledge. It duly arrived in January 1993 with the R1100RS sports-tourer. Eight short months later the enduro version – the R1100GS – was unveiled.

A New Front End

The oil-cooled engine wasn’t the only big news. The ‘frame’, such that there was, came in three parts: the engine and gearbox housing was to form the central element, onto that bolted the front and rear subframes. But while the rear suspension was a mere evolution of Paralever, the system at the front was more radical. Instead of conventional telescopic forks, the new GS’s front wheel was controlled by a revolutionary suspension system called ‘Telelever’ – effectively a combination of telescopic forks and a swinging arm.

Once again this bigger, more imposing machine was an instant hit. In Germany, the GS’s most important market, it instantly became the country’s fifth bestselling machine.

Of course, even then that wasn’t the end of the story. Six years later, after selling more than 40,000 examples, the R1100GS was replaced by the R1150GS; an evolution of the 1100, with an even larger engine, new six-speed gearbox, a host of detail revisions and a significant (and controversial) facelift.

There was also a more significant difference: two years after the 1150, BMW launched the first ‘Adventure’ version. They couldn’t have imagined how significant it would become.

Inspired partly by its ‘Paris-Dakar’ forebears, but also by the GS’s growing following among long distance ‘adventure’ travellers (hence the name change), the new Adventure used a familiar recipe: to enhance the GS’s off-road capability plus improve its long distance ability both in terms of comfort and endurance. Key differences, therefore, were a new, extra large, 30-litre fuel tank, longer travel, off-road suspension, anodized wheels, larger windshield, single-piece seat and sturdier oil sump guard.

The Adventure was also the machine that leapt to fame in TV’s Long Way Round, with British actors and friends Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman in 2004, the success of which has been accredited for increasing both the popularity of the adventure bike class and the GS in particular.

Once again it didn’t end there. In 2004, the 1150GS was replaced by the R1200GS which, for the first time, was lighter and more agile. While this in turn was followed by a new Adventure version, which again was popularized in McGregor and Boorman’s TV follow-up, Long Way Down, in 2007. By now the GS was an almost unstoppable force.

But if the success of the GS series has proven one thing more than any other, it’s how adept BMW has been in successively reinventing its wonder machine to keep ahead of the pack.

In 2007 – three years after its debut, during which over 75,000 examples were produced – the R1200GS underwent a significant update. Further updates would also come in 2010 joined later by a series of limited edition specials.

Then, in 2013 – eight years on from the original R1200 – came another, all-new GS; the first with watercooling. Like all its predecessors, the latest incarnation was unequivocally a success. In the first magazine tests the new bike instantly reasserted its dominance of the ever-more competitive ‘Adventure’ class. While in group shootouts, against the very latest new rivals from the likes of KTM and Aprilia, the new GS invariably came out on top. No mean feat for the ‘granddaddy’ of adventure sports.

Today, the GS remains one of the world’s bestselling machines, and is still the definitive adventure bike, despite more competition than ever. It’s also one of the machines that best typifies modern motorcycling and, through its evolution over its 35 year lifespan, best demonstrates how modern motorcycling has evolved. Without the GS, motorcycling simply wouldn’t be the same. Without the G/S there probably wouldn’t be BMW motorcycles.